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Hillsborough County Commission meeting gets hot talking wage theft

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Although every member of the Hillsborough County Commission weighed in this morning regarding their concern about the issue of wage theft in the county, the Republican members’ prescription of how to alleviate the problem drew the wrath of the measure’s proponent, Democrat Kevin Beckner.

Beckner said that his colleagues’ worries about growing the size of government outweighed their professed concern for workers losing wages unfairly in the county, and they rejected his proposal, based on a Miami-Dade County ordinance.

The issue isn’t dead yet, however.

First, some background.

Wage theft is defined as workers not receiving wages that they are legally owed. It occurs in different forms, including unpaid overtime, not being paid at least the minimum wage, working during meal breaks, misclassification of employees as independent contractors, forcing employees to work off the clock, altering time cards or pay stubs, illegally deducting money from employees’ pay checks, paying employees late, or simply not paying employees at all.

A report from Florida International University published earlier this year showed that Hillsborough County rates second in the state in documented cases of wage theft, trailing only behind Miami-Dade County, based on figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. Pinellas County ranked fourth in the study. The report also said that Miami-Dade’s ordinance to deal with the issue has allowed it to recover more than $4 million in lost wages.

Beckner was hoping the board would pass his proposal today and call for a public hearing on June 3.

But Commission Chair Sandy Murman said she had been reviewing materials on how other counties in Florida have been dealing with the issue, and offered a motion that the county take the approach that Palm Beach County has, and opt out of hiring a staffer. A Hillsborough County official told the board that while there would be no cost to the county in 2016, there could be a need to hire a staffer in 2017 at a salary of $45,000. Palm Beach County doesn’t pay a staffer to deal with such disputes, but farms out the work to a local legal agency.

Murman said the county could do the same to the agency it already works with — Bay Area Legal Services. “I’m not opposing the principles of this ordinance,” she said, but added that it not be “an unnecessary burden to our county.”

Jeanette Smith, a coordinator for the Florida Wage Theft Task Force, has been working on the issue for years, and with Commission Beckner for the past few months. She told board members that Palm Beach County doesn’t have an ordinance to deal with wage theft, but instead spends approximately $100,000 for their own local legal aide to deal with the problem.

That information prompted Commissioner Les Miller to question Murman about the concerns about costs. “We’re not looking to expand government, but we could be expanding our budget for more than $45,000?”

After County Attorney Chip Fletcher said the county already provides over a million dollars to Bay Area Legal Services, Commissioner Ken Hagan said that firm should be able to “absorb such costs,” but said he strongly supported the measure, thanking Beckner for bringing it up.

But the dialogue got spicier after Smith said that lobbyists from the Florida Retail Federation who oppose local wage theft ordinances in Florida actually prefer the Palm Beach County model, prompting Beckner to say that his colleagues didn’t seem to want to craft the best ordinance to deal with the issue in going with the Palm Beach County concept.

“I would just hope that this board would adopt an ordinance that is the most effective ordinance, and really touches the lives and hearts of people, and not the special interests of lobbyists,” Beckner said. Although Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist seemed to bristle at the suggestion that they were lobbied by the Retail Federation to back the Palm Beach County model, Beckner said that when he was in Tallahassee he heard that a lobbyist was calling Hillsborough commissioners.

“I’m just putting out there that it’s really strange to come forward with a Palm Beach model, when we have other models that have proven to be effective,” he said.

The board finally voted 7-0 to hold a public meeting June 17, at which time the staff would report on the Palm Beach ordinance.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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